Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Get to Know Your Cubs: Kyle Hendricks

In my daily perusal of blogs and articles and comment threads on the Cubs, as well as my daily conversation with Cubs' fans of all varieties, I'm realizing more and more that so many of the Cubs' current players are unknown to the general fan base. And who can blame those fans? The Cubs have existed in their decrepit state of inadequacy for the better part of 4 years with a roster existing of Starlin Castro, Anthony Rizzo, and a bunch of no-name youngsters and washed-up journeymen. Long removed are we from the days of Mark Prior, Kerry Wood, and Sammy Sosa. Personally, I haven't really liked or been excited for anyone on the major league roster since the days of Ryan Theriot (and he turned out to be a jerk after being traded to St. Louis and claiming that he was "finally on the right side of the rivalry").

Needless to say, it's been a while since the Cubs have had a slew of players who you could actually like and be excited about. So for the benefit of band wagon, passive, pseudo-passive, and avid Cubs' fans everywhere, I'm going to be starting a mini-series where we take a look at some of the current Cubs players who fans can get excited about and latch on to and actually cheer for (an unfamiliar concept for most Cubs' fans). What better way to start off this series than by taking a look at one of the newest faces on the big league roster? First up in the 'Get to Know Your Cubs' series is RHP Kyle Hendricks.

7 starts into his major league career, 24 year-old Kyle Hendricks has already drawn comparisons to former Cubs' great and recent Hall-of-Famer, Greg Maddux. While some argue that Kyle Hendricks' 5-1 record with a 1.66 ERA is a sign of the second-coming of Greg Maddux, other baseball purists insist that there will almost certainly never be another like Maddux. John Arguello at the Cubs Den wrote an insightful article comparing Maddux and Hendricks, and he gives a positive prediction of Hendricks' future without setting unreachable Maddux-like expectations for the poor kid. Whichever side you fall on, Hendricks has placed himself in an elite group with fellow starter Jake Arrieta as the future front-of-the-rotation pitchers for the Chicago Cubs.

Hendricks was drafted in 2011 in the 8th round out of Dartmouth College by the Texas Rangers. After being acquired in 2012 along with Christian Villanueva for Ryan Dempster and Geovany Soto, Hendricks spent the rest of his 2012 season at High-A Daytona. In 2013, he spent time between AA Tennessee and AAA Iowa, where he went a combined 13-4 with a 2.00 ERA, earning him Cubs' Minor League Pitcher of the Year honors. To start this year, Hendricks was in Iowa, where he pitched to a record of 10-5 with a 3.59 ERA. This was good enough to earn him the call-up to the big leagues when Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel were shipped out to Oakland.

Hendricks features a slightly above average fastball and change-up with decent movement and control, along with a below-average curveball. What makes him so effective, however, is his out-of-this-world intelligence (a Dartmouth education will help with that) and ability to change levels and induce weak contact. His .232 opponent BABIP may seem completely unsustainable, but for a pitcher like Hendricks (forces weak contact), you can expect the BABIP to be lower. While hitters may start to get harder contact off of him as they get more experience against him, he will always have a low opponent BABIP. This, coupled with his low FIP (3.54), explains his otherworldly ERA.

Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP), measures what a pitcher's ERA should be, independent of pitching, by using only a pitcher's HR%, KO%, and BB%. For reference, Maddux had a career 3.26 FIP and a career 3.16 ERA. This metric shows us that Maddux's defenses behind him throughout his career slightly helped him over the course of his career.

Hendricks may not have the jaw-dropping FIP of the current MLB aces, but he is within .3 points of one of the greatest pitchers of all-time. Yes he's only started 7 games. Yes the sample size is incredibly small. Yes he will regress at some point. But for his last 4 starts, people have been continually doubting his success. For the better part of the last 3 weeks, Hendricks' critics have been claiming that his current success is a fluke. Sure he will regress at some point (he's putting up Cy Young-like numbers currently), but let's sit back for a moment and enjoy the ride.

Hendricks' pitching style is eerily similar to Maddux, and he has been just as effective as any other pitcher in the majors to this point in his career. He lacks the devastating off-speed pitch that Maddux had, but Cubs' pitching coach Chris Bosio seems to have a knack for developing devastating off-speed pitches in his young pitchers (see Jake Arrieta, Neil Ramirez). You can't teach the natural instincts or intelligence that Hendricks possesses. What you can teach, however, his how to throw a curve ball.

One of the most incredible parts of next season (in a season full of prospect call-ups and development) will be the progress of Kyle Hendricks. Look for Kyle Hendricks to slide in right behind Jake Arrieta next year in what looks to be a promising, young rotation.

Ah, so this is what it feels like to be excited about the Cubs.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Javy Baez Tracker (Live Updates)

It's official: The Chicago Cubs' #2 prospect and baseball's #7 overall prospect has finally been called up the majors. Javier Baez will make his MLB Debut tonight at Coors Field against the Colorado Rockies at 7:40 CST. Baez is starting at second base, hopefully shoring up the middle of the infield for the next decade alongside double play partner Starlin Castro. Cubs' fans everywhere have soaring expectations and hopes for Baez, and tonight is the first step for him in achieving these goals.

As the night goes on, I'll be updating this post with pitch-by-pitch analysis of Baez's at bats. Keep checking back throughout the night to see my take on the major league debut of one of the Cubs' top prospects.

At-Bat #1

After Arismendy Alcantara chopped out to SS Josh Rutledge to start the game, Javier Baez stepped up for his first major league at-bat, facing left-hander Brett Anderson.

Pitch 1: Took a high fastball. 1-0

Pitch 2: Took a high curve ball. 2-0

Pitch 3: Baez takes a HUGE swing and chopped ball off of his front foot. 2-1

Pitch 4: Took a high curveball for a strike (really bad call, good take by Baez). 2-2

Pitch 5: Took another big swing and foul tipped it back. 2-2

Pitch 6: Another huge swing, fouling the ball down the left field line. 2-2

Pitch 7: Swung out in front of a slider and missed for a strikeout. 


Despite ending in a strikeout, Javy Baez had himself a very good first at-bat. He didn't swing at any balls, so his plate recognition was very good. One thing that stands out to me is how big all of his swings were, no matter what the count. He swung just as hard on pitch 3 with a 2-0 count as he did when there was a 2-2 count. The dude also has HUGE forearms. Baez had himself a good major league at-bat, look for a couple hard-hit balls later in the game.

At-Bat #2 | Currently 0-1 /w K

After Brett Anderson shut down the Cubs for the first three innings, he injured something (looks like his lower back) on his first pitch to Alcantara. With Anderson's injury, the Rockies brought in left-handed pitcher Franklin Morales. He gets Alcantara to line out to center, and with that, Baez steps in for his 2nd at-bat.

Pitch 1: Takes a curve ball on the low inside corner for a strike. 0-1

Pitch 2: Watches a fastball on the outer half for a strike. 0-2

Pitch 3: Takes a fastball low and inside for a ball. 1-2

Pitch 4: Chops a fastball on the outer half down the left field line for a foul ball. 1-2

Pitch 5: Hits a hard ground ball to the left of 3B Nolan Arenado who makes a nice play to throw Baez out at first.

I actually liked Baez's first at-bat that ended in a strikeout better than this one that ended with a decently hard hit ball. Baez did a good job watching pitches 1 and 3 (despite being a strike, pitch 1 would have been a very tough curve ball to hit), but he let a really good one go on pitch number 2. I appreciate his patient approach and he definitely has very good plate discipline, but on a belt-high middle-away fastball, Baez needs to jump on that. On the 2 pitches he swung on, he put good swings on strikes, so it's tough to complain. Let's hope Baez can really get a hold of one next AB.

At-Bat #3 | Currently 0-2 /w K

After an Alcantara KO, Baez comes to the play for his 3rd at-bat with a runner on 2nd and 2 outs. Still facing lefty Franklin Morales.

Pitch 1: Baez takes a HUGE swing and fouls a fast ball up and to the left.

Pitch 2: Takes a curve at the knees for a strike.

Pitch 3: Late swing on a high fastball for a strike out.

This was simply not a good at-at. Baez swung at a ball, took a strike, then swung at another ball. On those two swings, it was also evident that he was trying too hard. He pulled his head way out on both of his swings. Not much to say here other than, "let's hope he doesn't do that next time".

At-Bat #4 | Currently 0-3 /w 2 Ks

After a 6 walk inning (including 2 walked-in runs), the Rockies are bringing out their third pitcher of the inning, right-hander Matt Belisle. Alcantara just walked to load the bases, so Baez is stepping up to the plate with some grand slam potential.

Pitch 1: Swing and foul tip on a hung slider right down the middle. Come on, Javy. 0-1

Pitch 2: Baez goes with a low and away fast ball and beats the snot out of the ball. Deep line drive to the track, but caught for the 3rd out to end the inning.

Baez looked like a man who wanted to get his first MLB hit, run, RBI, HR, and Grand Slam out of the way with one swing of the bat. He pulled his head a little bit on the first swing which caused him to tip it like he did. His kept his head down on the second pitch, however, and really had a great shot to the track. If he gets another at-bat, look for Baez to shoot a gap or shoot it over the wall. He needed to make really good contact to get himself going. I'm calling a Javy HR or double if he gets a 5th at-bat. Let's hope I don't look stupid.

At-Bat #5 | Currently 0-4 /w 2 Ks

Here we are - extra innings. Right-hander Adam Ottavino is on the mound for the Rockies, and after a Mendy KO, it's time for Baez's 5th at-bat. Let's hope my bold prediction of a HR/other XBH comes true...

Pitch 1: Baez checks his swing on a slider low and away but the 1st base ump says he went around. 0-1

Pitch 2: Absolutely UNLOADS on a slider down the middle - but he fouls it to the back stop. 0-2

Pitch 3: Another slider, this one is taken in the dirt. 1-2

Pitch 4: Chases another high fastball, strikeout number 3.

One of the things that is most often preached in the majors is that as a hitter, you may only get one good pitch to hit per at-bat. You need to be sure to jump on that one good pitch you're given. This is definitely a theme I saw with Baez tonight. There was at least one good pitch in every at-bit (pitch #2 in this case), and he took a good, big, aggressive swing like he should, but he fouled it back every time. As I mentioned other times tonight, Baez keeps pulling his head, typically a sign that a player is trying too hard - understandable considering the pressure he is under. This should be Baez's last at-bat. Hopefully his 0-5 night with 3 Ks isn't the sign of things to come. Look for Baez to start keeping his head down as he relaxes more and as the Cubs' coaching staff has a chance to spend more time working out the kinks in his swing.

Overall, despite the unfortunate results, Baez's 4th at-bat should be a sign of optimism for Cubs' fans. If Baez can go back to his Little League roots and keep his eye on the ball, bleacher goers at Wrigley Field should put their beers down and get their gloves ready.

At-Bat #5 | Currently 0-5 /w 3 Ks

So, I must say that I never envisioned Baez getting 6 at-bats, but after Carlos Villaneuva let the Rockies tie the game up in the bottom of the 11th, Baez stepped up to the plate first in the top of the 12th.

Pitch 1: Baez is thrown a fastball on the outer half and...

In my analysis for Baez's 5th at-bat, I thought that was the end of his night. I said that if he can keep his eye on the ball, he could succeed. Well, I have that video playing on a continuous loop, just because it feels good to watch, and it's pretty obvious to me that Baez kept his head on the ball.

It's strange that in Baez's at-bat where he was the least patient, he had the most success; however, he did a great job of jumping on the one good pitch he was going to see his entire at-bat.

Baez's 1-6 night with 3 Ks and a HR basically sums up what many people were expecting from Baez for the first couple weeks. Don't expect Baez to keep up with his 50% KO%, and don't expect him to hit a HR every day. Whatever happens, Baez is an electrifying player who should keep Cubs' fans interested in Cubs' baseball for a long, long time.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

MLB Waiver Trade Deadline - Okay, Now What?

The MLB Non-Waiver Trade Deadline has come and gone, yet there are still a few faces on the Cubs who many expected (and hoped) to get shipped out within the last week. However, just because the Non-Waiver deadline has passed, that doesn't mean that Cubs fans are stuck watching the brilliance of Edwin Jackson and Nate Schierholtz for another 2 months. Luckily for Cubs' fans, we have the MLB Waiver Trade Deadline.

Within the week that follows the passing of the Non-Waiver Trade Deadline, teams put most of their rosters on revocable waivers. This means that the decision to place players on waivers can be revoked; the player can remain with his original team; however, it gets more interesting than that.

If a player is placed on revocable waivers after July 31st but not claimed by any other team, that player's team is allowed to negotiate and trade that player to another team. If that player is claimed by another team, the player's original team can choose to allow the team with the highest priority claim to take that player and the rest of his salary, or the player's original team can try to work out a trade for that player within two days with the team who has the highest priority claim on that player.

Because of these rules that govern trades in the month of August, the following three types of players typically change teams:

1. Players who are traded after passing through waivers that are extremely overpaid and have struggled this year. A potential candidate for this kind of transaction is the Cubs' very own Edwin Jackson.
2. Players who were claimed by a team and released by their original team for whatever reason (bad contract, bad attitude, overall suckiness). A recent example of this for Chicagoans is when Alex Rios was placed on waivers in 2009 by the Toronto Blue Jays and claimed by the Chicago White Sox.
3. Players who were claimed by a team and traded to the team with the highest waiver priority.

The Cubs still have a few candidates for an August departure on the major league roster, so here's a run-down on some of the Cubs' players to potentially be traded.

Nate Schierholtz - RF
Nate Schierholtz has struggled this year for the Cubs

After a solid 2013 campaign where he slashed .251/.301/.470 with 21 home runs, Schierholtz has struggled mightily and dropped below the Mendoza line, slashing a pathetic /.195/.242/.305 (Fangraphs). With such a poor offensive season, the hopeful candidate to be flipped at the trade deadline still sits on the pine at Wrigley Field on an almost daily basis. The silver lining, however, is that Schierholtz is significantly under performing his career numbers.

Schierholtz's 2013 numbers were much more on-par with his career line of .254/.303/.407 than his putrid showing in 2014. A potential reason for this is Schierholtz's career low BABIP of .232. A BABIP of .232 is a sign of an incredibly unlucky year, so Schierholtz's numbers aren't necessarily a good indicator of how he has actually been performing. While he hasn't been playing well in any sense of the word, the grotesque, Milton Bradley-esque numbers of Schierholtz's 2014 are also indicative of his pure unluckiness.

A contender in need of a 4th or 5th outfielder, especially one to be used as a platoon against right handing pitching, should take a serious look at Schierholtz. I wouldn't be surprised if a team lacking outfield depth like the Blue Jays tries to work for a trade with the Cubs later in August. Don't expect much back, but hey, whatever it is, it's most likely better than Schierholtz.

Luis Valbuena - 3B/IF
Luis has had his best season as pro, slashing .250/.331/.435

Valbuena is having a breakout year (by his standards), but he still has significantly more value to a team in contention with the need for a back up 3B/IF than he has with the Cubs. Despite playing the role of a steady veteran of the Cubs this year, there are plenty of top infield prospects at AAA pawing and sniffing the ground, getting ready to jump in and claim their roles as starters on the big league team. Valbuena is in their way.

Valbuena has a lot of value to any team looking for a left-handed bat off the bench or a solid defensive replacement at 3B or 2B. If and when Valbuena is put on waivers, expect him to be claimed by multiple teams. He has a team friendly contract at $1.7m/1 year, so don't expect the Cubs to just get rid of him. Because multiple teams will most likely claim him, the Cubs will only be able to work out a trade to the team with the highest priority waiver claim on him. The priority of waivers is determined by record, so the worst team in the league has the first right to claim a player. Because of this, if Valbuena gets traded, it likely won't be to a contender.

Of all the players on this list, Valbuena is most likely to be traded, but if he is, a team like the Cardinals seem to fit the bill. They don't have much infield depth and are barely above .500, yet they are still looking to contend. While Valbuena probably won't be traded, it's nice to envision the prospects that could come up and take his place.

Ryan Sweeney - LF/OF
Unfortunately, we don't see this from Sweeney too often

Ryan Sweeney and Nate Schierholtz seem to have the same baseball-related disease (must be contagious with Cubs outfielders). They both had one really decent year, then proceeded to hop on the Milton Bradley-Corey Patterson-Felix Pie-Jason Dubois train of ineptitude. Needless to say, Sweeney's .236/.282./.333 line this year is pretty poor, coming in at about .50 points below his career averages.

To me, Ryan Sweeney is an enigma. He looks like he's more ripped than Josh Hamilton, but he can't hit home runs. He should be this big, lumbering fellow, but he's a relatively quick defender who likes to play small ball offensively. I don't get it. Whatever the case may be, he's another under performing outfielder who would be better suited as the 4th or 5th outfielder on a contender. Similarly to Schierholtz, expect Sweeney to end up on a team that needs a left-handed 4th or 5th outfielder like the Blue Jays.

Edwin Jackson - SP
"Chicago killed E. Jackson's right arm" - Buggles

Edwin Jackson.

Oh, Edwin Jackson.

Now I really want to rag on him for just being bad. And he's really bad. But he did just finish throwing a quality start against the team with the best record in the national league, the Dodgers, so I can't be too mean to him. However, you know what they say: one good start does not a good pitcher make.

Or something like that.

Anyway, it says something that the Cubs weren't able to trade him during the entire month of July. All rumors were that they were trying incredibly hard to trade him, but that there were no takers. Edwin Jackson has been a historic kind of bad. His 5.66 ERA is leading the majors by .56 points - over the Cubs' Travis Wood. Edwin Jackson is getting paid way too much money to have a 5.66 ERA, which is why the Cubs have tried so hard to ship him out, and why no body has come close to biting.

I really don't know who would want to obtain Jackson. If he continues his month of August like he started it against the Dodgers, he might start to bring some value to a contender. If he keeps up his 5.66 ERA... well, let's just hope he doesn't keep that up.
Unfortunately, trading away any of these players won't be likely to add anything more than middle-of-the-road farm system depth, but a player's departure from the MLB team also opens up a spot for one of the Cubs' AAA studs to get a shot at the big league level before the end of the season.

If the Cubs are lucky enough to find a safe, loving home for Edwin Jackson, that opens up a spot for Kyuji Fujikawa, Felix Doubront, or another arm. If Schierholtz or Sweeney get traded, look for Jorge Soler to get an early call up to the big leagues. If it's Valbuena who is sent away, get ready...

It's Javy Baez time.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Evaluating the Cubs' Trade Deadline

It has already come and gone: July 31st, the annual highlight of my Summer, the MLB Trade Deadline. Since the start of the Theo regime, the Trade Deadline has been an annual fire sale, used to trade away the few redeeming parts of the Cubs' annual on-field mediocrity for the promise of a brighter future; however, this will be the last year where the Cubs are obvious sellers at the deadline. The slew of prospects acquired by Theo and Jed over the past 3 years are finally about to break through the surface and thrust the Cubs into contention. But before we get carried away, let's recap the deadline deals the Cubs made this year.

RHP Jeff Samardzija and RHP Jason Hammel to Oakland Athletics for SS Addison Russell, RHP Dan Straily, and OF Billy McKinney

Alright, fine. So maybe this wasn't at the deadline. Maybe it wasn't even CLOSE to the deadline, but the fact of the matter is, this trade was the biggest block buster of the year, sending the Cubs' best two starters (until Jake Arrieta went beast-mode that is) to Oakland for young starting pitcher, Dan Straily, as well as Oakland's top 2 prospects, including Baseball America's #5 overall prospect in all of baseball, Addison Russell (above).

"But, Neal!" you protest, "David Price and Jon Lester were traded! They're both better pitchers than Samardzija and Hammel! How can you claim this was the biggest block buster of the year?" Aye, my dear reader, there's the rub. While I would agree with you that Price and Lester are both more proven pitchers and slightly more talented pitchers than Samardzija, neither team got nearly the return off of their two pitchers that the Cubs got.

The Rays received the Mariners' equivalent of Josh Vitters in SS/2B Nick Franklin, as well as solid pitcher Drew Smyly, and 18 year old shortstop Willy Adames. All of this, for David Price. Franklin was supposed to be a great everyday shortstop, but he has struggled to the tune of .214/.291/.358 in 119 career games. Drew Smyly is solid 25 year-old LHP with a 3.53 career ERA. Smyly can be used as a starter or a reliever. Willy Adames has a long way to go, but he's a very interesting, high-upside prospect to look at. Needless to say, the Rays received about what the Cubs got last year for Matt Garza.

The A's received Jon Lester and Jonny Gomes from the Red Sox for Yoenis Cespedes. There's some money exchanging hands as well, but all-in-all, the trade still pales in comparison to the haul the Cubs got back on July 4th from Samardzija and Hammel. Cespedes will be a free agent in 2015, and will likely be overpaid by the Yankees to join the ranks of ludicrously overpaid players in the Bronx. Boston, did you trade away your ace for a year and a half of a career .262/.318/.470 player during a time period where you won't be in contention? Well, to each their own.

Either way, the fact that the Cubs were able to receive one of the best prospects in all of baseball, a solid and durable young arm, as well as a very promising 19 year old outfielder for Samardzija and Hammel is incredibly impressive. Of all of the trades made this Summer, this one takes the cake for biggest block buster. And while we'll miss Samardzija and Hammel, it's nice that Samardzija finally gets a chance to win some baseball games.

And to think, I had finally learned how to spell his name.

Grade: A+

2B Darwin Barney to LA Dodgers for RHP Jonathan Martinez

One of the things that I've learned recently is that the same player can have drastically different values to two different teams. When looking at Jeff Samardzija, he has immense value on a contending team because of how good he his. On the Cubs, it doesn't matter how good he is. The Cubs will not compete, so it's not worth it to the Cubs to pay Samardzija the amount of money he wanted on an extension. This is why the Oakland trade worked out so well for both sides involved. The players involved were significantly more valuable to the teams they were trade to than the teams they were traded from. The same can be said for Darwin Barney.

With the Cubs, Barney was in a position where he was needed to be an every day regular. Well, when you slash .230/.265/.328, that's not good enough for a team who needs an every day second baseman. However, for the Dodgers, Barney fills a role as a late-game defensive replacement, and he fills that role better than anyone in the majors. Needless to say, Barney has significantly more value to the Dodgers than to the Cubs. This trade works out for both parties, as it clears a roster spot for the Cubs, but it also works out well for Barney himself. For the first time in his career, he can be on a team contending for a World Series.

Jonathan Martinez was acquired from the Dodgers for Darwin Barney
In return, the Cubs received a PTBNL. This player was later named as Jonathan Martinez. Martinez is a 20 year-old at Class A who was pitching well with a very respectable 3.47 ERA on the year. Even more impressive is his 7.7 K/9 and his 1.6 BB/9. With an above average fastball and average off-speed offerings, Martinez projects to be a very serviceable bullpen arm 3-4 years from now.

Clearing permanent space on the major league for Alcantara while deepening our minor league pitching was the sole purpose for this trade, and Theo & Co. accomplished just that.

Grade: B+

Cubs acquire LHP Felix Doubront from Boston Red Sox for PTBNL

I like this trade.

Let me clarify: I really like this trade. Dependent upon who the Cubs send away as their PTBNL, this trade has the potential to be a total steal for the Cubs.

Rewind 13 months to last year when the Cubs traded away Scott Feldman and Steven Clevenger for Pedro Strop and the formerly-promising-but-then-struggling Jake Arrieta. The Cubs traded just a little bit away to receive a formerly highly-touted pitcher in Jake Arrieta. 13 months later, Jake Arrieta is the Cubs' ace and has the look of one of the best pitchers in the National League.
Doubront looks to have a bounce-back career with the Cubs
Felix Doubront is the 2014 left-handed manifestation of Jake Arrieta. Look for the Cubs' coaching staff to 'fix' Felix Doubront and turn him into a solid 3 or 4 in the Cubs' pitching rotation.

Grade: Tough to say because the PTBNL won't be declared until after the Rule 5 Draft, but this trade could be anywhere from a C to an A. As of now, I'll say B-

2B/OF Emilio Bonifacio and LHP James Russell to Atlanta Braves for C Victor Caratini

When this trade was first announced and Gordon Wittenmyer tweeted that the Cubs acquired a minor league catcher from Atlanta, I was desperately hoping for the Braves' #3 overall prospect, AAA catcher Christian Bethancourt. However, life isn't always fair and we don't always get what we want. So instead, the Cubs will have to settle with 20 year-old swtich-hitting catcher, Victor Caratini.

Caratini looks to continue his growth at Kane County
Now, I use the word 'settle' here wryly, because there are very few exciting/intriguing catching prospects in baseball right now, and I think the Cubs grabbed one of them with Caratini. Caratini also has the skills to play 3B, but expect the Cubs to leave him behind the dish because there are very few catchers in the Cubs' system.

Through the first year and a half of his career, the switch-hitting catcher has shown good plate discipline, flashes of power, a solid hit tool, and above average defense as a 20 year-old at Class A. If he can hit 15-20 HRs and hit above .270 while playing above average defense (which he projects to do), Caratini will be a borderline all-star, simply due to the fact that there are so few good offensive catchers. Don't expect jaw-dropping stardom, but look forward to a solid career from Caratini.

Giving up Bonifacio and Russell hurts, but like I mentioned earlier with Barney and Samardzija, how much value do these guys really have to the Cubs right now? I think I speak for all Cubs' fans when I say that I wish the best of luck to both Bonifacio and Russell as well as the Braves for the rest of 2014.

Here's to the hope that the Braves continue to trade us their best under-the-radar prospects at the trade deadline for the 4th year in arrow in 2015! Hip-hip, Go Braves!

Grade: A-

While the non-waiver trade deadline has come and gone in 2014, Cubs' fans can expect at least one more trade between now and the August 31st waiver deadline (please be Edwin Jackson, please be Edwin Jackson). Until then, the Cubs' front office has continued to grow the talent on the farm and has given the Cubs' fan base something to become even more excited about. While we were sellers at the deadline this year, don't expect that to be the case next year.

The Cubs will compete, and the Cubs will compete soonSo while this year may be lost, you know what they say:

There's always next year.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Genius of Theo Epstein

On November 25, 2002, the Boston Red Sox made history by hiring 28 year-old Theo Epstein as their general manager, making him the youngest GM in MLB history. Fast-forward 12 years to today, and now 40 year-old Theo Epstein has ended the Red Sox second longest World Series drought in MLB history with a World Series title in 2004. He then won one more in 2007, and he was also responsible for drafting or acquiring many of the players on the most recent 2013 World Series championship team. Theo Epstein killed the curse of the Bambino, and then added two more World Series titles on top of that. Now as President of Baseball Operations with the Chicago Cubs, Epstein is looking to end the Cubs' 106 year World Series drought and to finally kill the curse of the Billy Goat.

While I personally have an incredibly high opinion of Theo Epstein, I've noticed in my perusing of various blogs and articles on the internet that there are many Cubs fans who feel differently. The amount of hate directed towards Theo Epstein from Cubs fans that I've seen is absolutely appalling.

From this comment about how the Cubs are close to contention: "Bull...oney! The Theos are a long..long way from contending. I'd like to hear Mr. Cubs GM's answer to the question of when he believes the Cubs will win the World Series. I don't think he has an answer to that question other than you gotta be patient and that's pure bull. Seems full of contradictions. Why hype about the farm system which doesn't look that great to me then give serious thought...and money...to some over the hill free agent big name pitcher? What's a farm system for if you ain't got any pitchers there? Get real."

To this article about why Theo is a fraud: "When Theo Epstein took over the Cubs, he was billed as the savior of a franchise that hadn’t won a World Series in over 100 years. Cubs fans thought if this guy could break the curse of the Bambino, then there was no reason he couldn’t break the curse of the goat. But after just two years of the all-great and all-powerful Theo, the only goat is a gullible nation of Cubs fans... Theo and his boy-toy Jed Hoyer have been preaching patience and player development since they took over this sinking ship, but outside of Dustin Pedroia, Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz – where was all this player development in Beantown that the boy genius talks about? In some ways, I do get why Cubs fans bought into Theo Epstein. He’s smart, good looking, and talks a great game. Be he isn’t the ‘baseball genius’ that everybody thinks he is."

And finally, this gem: "I have no reservations in saying that Theo Epstein is the most overrated GM of all-time, having coasted his entire career off of a reputation that he built in 2003 and 2004."

Sometimes, reading opinions like that can be maddening. It's tough for me to empathize with others' negative opinions of the rebuild because it's obvious to me to see how incredibly bright the future of the Chicago Cubs is. While sometimes I am maddened by those comments, other times I feel like I do now, confused as to why so much hate is being slung in the direction of Theo Epstein. Before launching into a spiel about why Theo Epstein is in fact a baseball genius, let me quickly address why the the opinions of the writers above aren't grounded in fact and why they simply fail to capture the entire story.

Jose Fernandez is out for the year with Tommy John surgery
Comment 1: A GM giving a prediction for a World Series title is a death wish. If that GM doesn't make or win the World Series that year, the entire fan base will be calling for your neck. Also, if you, most intelligent comment writer, can't see the ludicrous talent the Cubs have marinading in their farm system, you need to reevaluate how you view a farm system. While there is a lack of high-profile, MLB-ready pitching, there's so much risk that those players will get injured (see Taijuan Walker, Jose Fernandez, Stephen Strasburg). No one can say with certainty what those pitchers will be like when they return from injury, so at this stage in the rebuild, it's not as important as building overall farm system depth. The Cubs have quietly been adding a lot of pitching depth through trades (Jake Arrieta, Corey Black, Arodys Vizcaino, C.J. Edwards, Neil Ramirez), the draft (Jake Stinnett, Carson Sands, Justin Steele), and international free-agent signings (Jen-Ho Tseng). Don't question the Cubs farm system, because every expert unanimously agrees that they have the best system, even without a future ace.

David "Big Papi" Ortiz may be the greatest DH of all-time
Comment 2: Sir, the only 'goat' is whoever convinced you that Theo Epstein had a free ride to a World Series title. Outside of Jon Lester (an ace), Dustin Pedroia (ROY and MVP), and Clay Buchholz (most Wins in AL last year until he was injured), Epstein had acquired an additional slew of talent. He drafted Jonathon Papelbon, Jacoby Ellsbury, Jed Lowry, Daniel Bard, Josh Reddick, and Wil Middlebrooks. His greatest acquisition, however, was his signing of Big Papi. Big Papi is arguably the greatest DH of all-time (Frank Thomas doesn't count, he played first base 44% of the time). Signing a player like Ortiz who had never been too successful up until that point epitomizes the genius of Theo Epstein. Ortiz went on to put up mammoth numbers that helped carry the Red Sox to their first World Series championship in 86 years. 

Comment 3: I need to quote this again just so you can let it sink in: "I have no reservations in saying that Theo Epstein is the most overrated GM of all-time, having coasted his entire career off of a reputation that he built in 2003 and 2004." Yes, because acquiring the aforementioned talent to win World Series titles in 2004 and 2007 makes him overrated. No GM can 'coast' to a championship. If the author of the quote above truly believes he built his reputation in 2003-04 and coasted from there, how do you explain the 2007 title? Or the 2013 team, which consisted heavily of players that Theo assembled? Maybe you're bitter the Cubs didn't win a world series within 2 years of hiring him, but baseball requires more patience in a rebuild than almost any other sport. Just because the Heat could suddenly compete after signing Lebron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh, doesn't mean that signing 3 all-stars in baseball suddenly puts your team in a position to compete. Rebuilds in baseball take time. Rebuilds take patience. Just because you lack the patience for an MLB-length rebuild, doesn't mean that you need to call Theo Epstein 'the most overrated GM of all-time".

Phew, now that that's done, let's take a look at some of the brilliant things Theo has done for the Cubs, and let's try to justify the one not-so-great thing Theo has done (cough Edwin Jackson cough). For ease of reading (and a little bit so my writing can stay focused), I'm going to break up the elements of Theo's role as a GM in 3 sections: The Draft, Trades, and Free Agents (international and domestic).

The Draft

Theo Epstein's draft strategy for the past 3 years has been to draft the most polished positional player with the best intangibles in the first round, and then draft every possible high-upside pitching arm with the subsequent picks in the draft.

Via Mike Rosenbaum's article on Bleacher Report and originally from Baseball Reference, here's a chart that shows the pitching depth the Cubs have drafted in the last three yars:

Notable Pitching Prospects Drafted from 2012 to 2014
YearPlayerCurrent AgeCurrent Level
2012RHP Pierce Johnson23Double-A
2012RHP Paul Blackburn20Low-A
2012RHP Duane Underwood19Low-A
2013LHP Rob Zastryzny22High-A
2013RHP Tyler Skulina22Low-A
2013RHP Trey Masek22Short Season
2013RHP Trevor Clifton19Short Season
2014RHP Jake Stinnett22Rookie
2014LHP Carson Sands19Rookie
2014LHP Justin Steele18Rookie
2014RHP Dylan Cease18N/A
2014RHP James Norwood20Short Season
2014RHP Jordan Brink21Short Season

These players, taken in conjunction with Albert Almora, Kris Bryant, and Kyle Schwarber (taken in the first round of 2012-2014), make up a promising future for the Cubs.

This strategy is brilliant for a couple of reasons:

Mark Appel was the first overall pick in the 2013 MLB Draft
1. So much can happen between getting drafted and playing in the big leagues, so a team should never spend their first round draft pick on a specific target because of need. Yes, the Cubs need pitching, but so did the Astros last year, and look at how great that turned out (see Mark Appel). Meanwhile, the Cubs last 4 first round picks (including Baez, but he was drafted before the Theo regime) have been terrorizing the minor leagues and look like bonafide future stars.

2. Pitchers get injured. Tommy John has already taken 39 players this year (most of whom are pitchers). Drafting 1 pitcher and putting all of your stock in him is a dangerous thing to do. The much safer option is to draft a bunch of young arms with potential in the later rounds in hopes that they pan out.

3. Mark Appel was taken in the 15th round out of high school. While he hasn't had a good pro career, he was the consensus #1 pick last year. This is the case for many pitchers who don't sign out of high school. Those players picked between rounds 5-20 who decline to go back to college typically end up being first round talents. When Kris Bryant graduated high school, the Blue Jays took him in the 18th round. See where he is now? Case in point, the first round pick should be spent on someone you can guarantee will be a star, which is what Theo has been doing. When Theo selected pitchers Carson Sands, Justin Steele, and Dylan Cease in the middle rounds, he was choosing high upside high school arms who had the potential to become top-10 draft picks after 3 years in college. For all intents and purposes, Theo drafted and signed 3 potential pitching studs for cheap. That's pretty brilliant.


Not much analysis is needed here to see that Epstein has brought in a copious amount of top-tier talent as well as general farm system depth by trading away veterans who did not have much value to the Cubs. Let's just recap some of the nutty trades Theo has been able to pull off:

1. Paul Maholm and Reed Johnson to the Braves for Jaye Chapman and Arodys Vizcaino. 

Holy cow. Vizcaino is a former top prospect with an incredibly high ceiling whose career was slowed down by injury. The Cubs traded Paul Maholm, for a top prospect. Let that sink in.

2. Ryan Dempster and Geovany Soto to Rangers for Christian Villaneuva and Kyle Hendricks.

While the Cubs did not receive any incredible talent in return, Villaneuva plays stellar defense with great doubles power while Hendricks looks to be a future middle-back of the rotation starter. Not bad for a 35 year-old pitcher and a washed up catcher.

Jake Arrieta has been unhittable as of late
3. Scott Feldman and Steve "The Cleaver" Clevenger (I may be the only one who calls him that) to the Orioles for Jake Arrieta and Pedro Strop.

When this trade was made, tears of joy were shed. I have always been such a fan of Arrieta, and Strop was a nice throw-in as well. With Samardzija gone, Arrieta has stepped up and looks like a genuine front-of-the-rotation starter while Strop continues to excel in the set-up role out of the bullpen. Needless to say, this was a great trade.

4. Matt Garza to the Rangers for C.J. Edwards, Mike Olt, Neil Ramirez, and Justin Grimm.

I repeat my sentiment from trade number 1: holy cow. Mike Olt, the original center piece of the deal, has not panned out, but no one blamed the Cubs for obtaining who many thought was to be a future star. Justin Grimm was viewed similarly to Jake Arrieta - a top prospect who's peripherals weren't in line with their actual production. While the Cubs have used Grimm exclusively in relief, he has been a solid contributor out of the bullpen. C.J. Edwards, despite injury, has been better than advertised, and looks like the future number 2 or 3 starter for the Cubs. And finally, the Player-To-Be-Named-Later, Neil Ramirez, has been one of the best PTBNL in recent memory despite the small sample size. Ramirez, too, had some injury issues that lowered his value to the Rangers. Once promoted to the Cubs, however, Ramirez has been incredible. I personally would love to see him moved to a starter role, because his wide arsenal of pitches would fit well there.

5. Alfonso Soriano and $10m to Yankees for Corey Black

Corey Black may be one of the most unknown prospects in the Cubs farm system, but just think of him as a more raw and more electric Neil Ramirez. His curveball (when located) is unhittable, and his fastball sits in the upper-90s. Even if Corey Black was awfulm most Cubs fan are in agreement that shipping out Soriano was long overdue.

6. Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel to Athletics for Addison Russell, Billy McKinney, and Dan Straily

Russell has 3 home runs in 11 games with the Smokies
The biggest trade of the Theo era might also have been the best for the Cubs. Jason Hammel signed with the Cubs for $6m last offseason. Because he was traded halfway through the year, he had been paid about $3m of that. Jeff Samardzija was not going to resign with the Cubs. He wanted too much money and the Cubs weren't willing to give it to him. If that's the case, why hold on to him? Hammel, a $3m journeyman starter, was having his best season of his career, and the Cubs traded him before his numbers could regress to his norm. Samardzija has no value to the Cubs as a player, because who cares if he pitches well if the Cubs aren't in a position to compete? While many Cubs fans are up in arms about the shipping out of 2 of the Cubs' best 3 pitchers, I'm ecstatic. Who cares if we win this year?

On the flip-side of that, Addison Russell is a top 5 prospect in all of baseball. Billy McKinney is top 100 (he was #2 in the A's system), and Dan Straily (former top prospect of the A's) has similar peripheral problems to Jake Arrieta, so he could end up being a great acquisition as well. Needless to say, the Cubs were looking ahead to 2016 with this trade, and they could not have acquired better prospects from anywhere else.

Free Agents

As far as free agent acquisitions go, the Cubs haven't really broken the bank on anybody. An Emilio Bonafacio here, a Wesley Wright there, the Cubs have been quietly amassing a legion of role players to flip at the deadline. Most of the aforementioned players were signed to short term deals by the Cubs and traded for prospects. Most people can agree that the Cubs thriftiness on the free agent front has saved the Cubs millions of dollars while getting them a countless number of prospects as well. However, there is one blight on the otherwise flawless record of Theo Epstein, and that blights name is Edwin Jackson.

Jackson has struggled his entire career, with a career 4.55 ERA
Edwin Jackson was Theo's Cubs equivalent of his signing of John Lackey while in Boston. The only justification I could have is that Jackson is an inning eater. Someone needs to pitch 150+ innings a year, and that's what Jackson has done every season of his career since 2007 (Fangraphs). His metrics have never been that good. He always walks a lot of people and gives up a lot of hits, but his safe, repeatable delivery keeps him injury free and on the mound deep into ball games. The problem of late of course is that Jackson has been so bad that he can't make it past the 5th inning. However, expect Edwin Jackson to start pitching a little better, as he has had an uncharacteristically bad year, and expect him to start gobbling up innings again.

Aside from these domestic free agent signings, Theo has been very aggressive and very successful with his international free agent signings. Last year, Theo inked the top two international free agents, outfielder Eloy Jimenez and shortstop Gleyber Torres. While most 16 year old free agent signings take a year or two to play in MLB-regulated leagues in the Dominican, Torres and Jimenez have been playing stateside with the Cubs affiliate in Boise this year, and they have been holding their own as 17 year-olds in rookie league hitting .211 and .255 respectively (Fangraphs). Expect these two to climb prospect rankings over the next few years, and look forward to their entrance to the majors in 2018.

Another pseudo-international signing is Cuban-defector Jorge Soler. Soler has been incredible, posting better numbers that Kris Bryant while at AA (read about that here). It's a very small sample size, yes, but still impressive nonetheless. Now that he's injury free, Soler has the look of a future all-star.

Jen-Ho Tseng has been the fastest rising Cubs prospect
The final international signing of importance is Taiwanese flame-throwing sensation Jen-Ho Tseng. The now 19 year-old Tseng has been absolutely shutting down opposing hitters in Class A Kane County. He has incredible poise and command of his arsenal for a 19 year-old, and he already has the look of a front-of-the-rotation stud. Originally listed outside of most everybody's top-20 prospect lists, Joel Reuter of Bleacher Report currently lists him at #9 in the Cubs' system. I personally have him listed at #14 on my list, but at the beginning of the year, he would have been nowhere near my top-20. Tseng has been dominate and will continue to rise through the minors and a brisk pace, assuming of course that he stays healthy. Needless to say, Epstein struck gold in this Taiwanese phenom.


I basically just summarized all of the acquisitions the Cubs made in the last 3 years under the Theo regime. Swinging pitchers like Paul Maholm and Scott Feldman for top prospects takes a manipulative genius, and that's exactly what Theo is. His thrifty handling of the Ricketts' money and his shrewd trading of MLB journeymen has placed the Cubs in an incredible position to compete for the next decade and beyond.

So next time you hear someone complain about Theo Epstein, just smile to yourself, because soon, very soon, the Cubs will have incredible talent playing in Wrigley Field on a daily basis.

And that's thanks to the genius of Theo Epstein.